Thursday, April 28, 2016

Star Wars Battlefront II - 4/20 hours

The PC version of Star Wars Battlefront II did not leave me with a good first impression. The problem is that the store page said this game has "partial controller support" and that left me with certain unrealistic expectations. I found myself very frustrated when I plugged my controller in and it didn't automatically detect and configure it. Then setting it manually proved to be very fiddly. Then (and this is no fault of the game, I know) Windows automatically updated while I was playing, and all in all my first hour with this was not very enjoyable.

However, once I got that out of the way, I found Star Wars Battlefront II to be pretty decent. It's not quite the addictive, jump-in-and-play shooter I remember it being, but it is perfectly serviceable. You point your gun at things and pull the trigger and they usually die, but sometimes you miss and then the things shoot back and when that happens you often die yourself. The Star Wars universe provides you with the pretext for being in the place with the things and helps determine what your enemies and allies look like, but, basically, shooting is the entire point.

I suppose, in theory, this could be a game that requires complex tactics as you attempt to control key locations on the battlefield in order to accrue advantage, but there's not much coordination to do in single-player mode. Your AI partners do whatever the hell they want and your AI enemies are not very good at reacting to it. Still, it must have been breathtaking to have a full roster of human players on both sides. I like to imagine that they were highly disciplined ballets of carnage where experienced players had to use all their cunning to secure even the slightest advantage. In all likelihood, however, the reality was the multiplayer was just as chaotic and directionless a the single-player game.

So far, all I've been doing is playing the campaign mode. The designers made the questionable choice to make the viewpoint faction be the Emperor's elite personal division of clones, but I guess in 2005 clone troopers were the latest and most fascinating addition to the Star Wars canon. I found the actual story to be pretty forgettable (the clone troopers who were bred to fight  war go to various locations and fight a war . . . with foreshadowing about Order 66). The last mission in the first chapter of the campaign has you go to the Jedi Temple and fight a bunch of Jedi, which was tactically interesting even if it played out very differently than the movies (a plot that makes you go "oh, thank goodness Anakin Skywalker is here" probably needs to be reconsidered just a little).

Overall, I'm not worried about having to play Star Wars Battlefront II for 20 hours. It may not be as good a shooter as Republic Commando, but it does have single-player random maps so its baseline adequacy means I'll never be bored, even if I'm also never especially inspired.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Star Wars Battlefront II - Initial Thoughts

About The Game (From the Steam Store Page)

With brand new space combat, playable Jedi characters, and over 16 all new battlefronts, Star Wars Battlefront II gives you more ways than ever before to play the classic Star Wars battles any way you want.

Enhanced Single-Player Experience - Join the rise of Darth Vader’s elite 501st Legion of Stormtroopers as you fight through an all new story-based saga where every action you take impacts the battlefront and, ultimately, the fate of the Star Wars galaxy.

All New Classic Trilogy Locations - Fight inside the corridors of the second Death Star, in the marshy swamps of Dagobah, and even aboard the Tantive IV, Princess Leia’s Blockade Runner, as seen at the beginning of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

More Classes and Vehicles - Now choose from six distinct soldier classes, plus bonus hero characters for each of the four factions: Rebels, Imperials, CIS and the Republic. Then jump into more than 30 diverse ground and space vehicles, including the clone BARC speeder, AT-RT and new Jedi Starfighter and ARC 170.

PLUS Improved Online Features - Engage in massive online battles with multiplayer action for up to 64 players. Play five different online game modes including Conquest, Assault, one-and two-flag Capture the Flag, and Hunt.

Now for the first time, Star Wars Battlefront II lets you…

Fight as a Jedi - Earn the ability to wield a lightsaber and use Force powers like Yoda, Darth Vader and many other heroes and villains.

Battle in Space - Dogfight in X-wings, TIE fighters, Jedi starfighters and other classic starcraft, or land your ship on a star destroyer and fight it out on foot aboard enemy ships.

Play 16 New Locations - Battle across Star Wars: Episode III environments such as Utapau, Mustafar and the epic space battle above Coruscant.

Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

This game was part of the huge Star Wars bundle that I bought last year. The bundle I got because 21 dollars for 14 games was unbelievable deal, but Star Wars Battlefront II was definitely one of the selling points for me. I'd played it on Xbox, but didn't own it until now.

Expectations And Prior Experience

I remember this as being a fun and kind of brainless action game, easy to jump into, but not terribly consequential. I also remember it as having admirable diversity in its gameplay mechanics, and I look forward to moving from ship to foot and back again.

My expectation is that this is going to be a fun bit of Star-Wars themed brawling, perhaps fairly repetitive once I get my feet in, but engaging enough that this won't matter. I understand that it still has a fairly lively online community, and given my memories of how the single-player went down years ago, it doesn't surprise me.

My biggest worry is that the game will not have aged well and that the controls will be clunkier than I remember them. That isn't necessarily a deal-breaker or anything, it's just something that will make me regret not going with a different game instead.

Spore: Galactic Adventures - 20/20 hours

I've finished Spore and now I have to try and sum up my feelings about it . . . Hoo boy, this is not going to be easy. It was often frustrating, but sometimes brilliant. It let you do things no other video game has ever attempted . . . sometimes for good reason.

I think Spore is a game that was released at the wrong time. What it really feels like to me is an especially well-done Early Access game. Its combination of genres is extremely ambitious and it's driven by a lot of good ideas, but the implementation still needs tweaking. Plus, how great would the creature stage be if a major company like Maxis had been able to implement its version of the now popular "wander around in a procedurally generated environment and try not to die" genre. We could have gotten a version of the early game that had been inspired by Minecraft instead of by MMOs.

But that's all speculation. Better to talk about the game we actually got. I love Spore, but I think I love it more for what it suggests than for what it actually is. In the broadest strokes, Spore is a game about life. The progression from cell to sapience to space is essential to the story it's trying to tell. When you finally get the chance to explore other planets, you find a galaxy that is thriving with life. The main antagonists are half-machine creatures who can only survive on lifeless worlds. Everything about the game builds to a central theme - the beauty of diversity and the unimaginable potential that exists inside everything that lives.

I like that story. Even the brutal parts are hopeful. And because I like that story so much, I'm willing to overlook a lot of Spore's flaws. I don't think of it as a blind-spot so much as a choice to focus on the worthwhile. For all of its faults, there's no other game that's a substitute for Spore. Nothing has the same combination of epic scope, visual appeal, creative versatility, and laid-back pace. It is one of a kind, and it has value for being that.

Viewed in the context of gaming's current creative explosion, I think I can see why Spore failed to spawn a franchise. It has the unrealistic ambition and self-conscious weirdness of an indie game, but was clearly made under the constraints of a more traditional corporate environment. Fittingly enough, given some of the taxonomical freaks I've made with the creature creator, it is neither fish nor fowl. From what I understand, there was some conflict during the making of the game about the direction it should take, and it really shows in the final product.

Final verdict - I love it, but I probably shouldn't. I can't unreservedly recommend it, because it is very justly divisive, but if you're ever in a position where you want to give an experimental hot mess of a game a chance, you could do worse than to dabble with Spore.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Spore: Galactic Adventures - 14/20 hours

I was going to write a full post at 14 hours, but I just can't right now. I've been trying to start from scratch on Galactic Adventures and on three separate planets, with three separate species, the game has crashed in the Creature Stage, losing me hours worth of progress. It's all I can do right now to stop from screaming.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Spore: Galactic Adventures - 8/20 hours

I'm doing an early post because I spent almost the entirety of my last two hours playing around with the Adventure Creator and I figure I should devote a post exclusively to this feature, because I don't think I'll be using it again.

Like all of Spore's creation tools, the Adventure Creator is extremely powerful for how easy it is to use. Basically, all you have to do is pick out the individual elements that make up your adventure's setting and cast, either making your own or picking from your Sporepedia, and then just drag them from the side of the screen to wherever you want to place them in the environment. Then you can rotate and resize them with a few clicks of the mouse. The behavior of characters can be tweaked by double clicking them and then adjusting a few sliders in the menu that pops up. And you can add sound and visual effects the same way, picking from a huge list of options and then just placing them in the environment just like characters and buildings.

I have absolutely no issue with how the Adventure Creator works. It's a great tool to put in the hands of ordinary people and it allows them to jump right in and create working video game scenarios with just a few minutes of training.

No, my issue with the Adventure Creator is that it is orders of magnitude more complex than any of Spore's other creation minigames and as a result crosses the ineffable line that separates "play" from "work." I dabbled with my adventure for two hours and got about 10 seconds worth of game out of it. To actually create a fully functional and presentable five-minute adventure would have taken many more hours.

Now, I'm the last person in the world who's in any position to criticize a hobby for being too much like work (if I'd written as much fiction as I have blog posts, I'd probably have finished three novels in the last two years) and I actually like the work-like aspects of many games (which is probably why I enjoy the survival crafting genre as much as I do). And if Maxis had just released the Adventure Creator for free as its own thing as a kind of "hey, here's a simplified game engine to play around with" I'd have no problem with it.

However, they didn't do that. They charged money for it. And then they structured the Galactic Adventures expansion pack around the assumption that their customers would flesh out the pack's content with donated labor. As much as I might like the Adventure Creator on its own terms, there's something about that kind of presumption that rubs me the wrong way.

I suppose you could level the same accusation at the base Spore game, and it is definitely true that the wide variety of user-created creatures is a huge part of the game's draw, but it doesn't feel the same to me for a couple of reasons. First, making a creature only takes a few minutes, so there's very little commitment and investment involved. Second, when you create a creature, it's primarily for your own game and the value is intrinsic to the activity itself. Any benefit to Maxis from users downloading your creations is incidental. By contrast, Adventures demand an audience. People aren't going to be writing stories to tell themselves and they're not going to be setting up scenarios just for the pleasure of running through them. Sharing is almost the entire point. Finally, Maxis did, in fact, release the Creature Creator for free, so at the very least they weren't necessarily charging people for the privilege of working for them.

I don't want to give the impression that I'm super-outraged or anything, but it does strike me as just a little bit shady. Still, trying to make my own Adventure has given me a whole new respect for even the "crappy" user-created Adventures. They clearly took a lot more work than I ever suspected.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Spore - Galactic Adventures - 6/20 hours

The Galactic Adventures expansion pack adds something absolutely vital to Spore's space stage - the ability to get out of your spaceship and beam down for away missions as an individual member of your species. This is a huge deal. The creature stage is the second-best part of the game, and prior to this expansion, you more or less had to accept that once you left the tribal stage, that creature would be nothing more than a speck in a distant background. With Galactic Adventures, your creature has the chance to take center stage once more.

Galactic Adventures also epitomizes Spore's greatest flaw - it took a good idea and then developed it in a perfunctory-seeming way.  The expansion opens up a lot of possibilities, but then opts to rely almost entirely on user-generated content. I'm not sure whether I played them all or not, but I believe there are only about a half dozen or so premade missions bundled with the game itself. Everything else has to be downloaded. Which maybe doesn't seem so bad, but each mission is less than five minutes in length (and user-created ones tend to be even shorter), which means that if your galaxy is set up in the right way, you'll blow through all of them in about a half-hour.

Of course, my galaxy wasn't set up quite right, so I spread that half-hour over the course of six, but even so, I did three of the mission within the first twenty minutes or so (each of the Maxis missions is associated with one of the empire philosophies). I probably should have played this game six years ago, back when the community was still active (I didn't actually get the game until 2013), though from what I understand, back then you had to sort through a lot of chaff to get to the worthwhile missions.

The good news is that my save from the other version of Spore carried over. I don't really understand how, given that the games are listed separately in my Steam library, but it meant that I didn't have to start over from scratch and was able to snatch a couple of valuable badges.

I'm not sure where I'll go from here. I made an attempt at the center of the galaxy, but that stalled due to the fact that I'm still lacking the most powerful interstellar drive and thus got stuck on a dead end (getting close to the core restricts your drive distance). But that's just vanity, though. The thing you get from making the trip is  a magical staff that instantly terraforms planets, but that's something that I really enjoy doing manually, so for me, it's purely a matter of bragging rights.

I think I'll probably give the adventure creator a shot. It looks like it could be pretty powerful and versatile, though I worry that it might be too complicated to use casually. Unless something comes along to change my mind, my next post will be a report about my attempt to create my own adventure.

Spore - 20/20 hours

I've still got a whole expansion pack left to play, so I don't want to get too retrospective here. I'll just say that I didn't get a lot of use out of the Creepy and Cute Creature pack, probably because I didn't want to hang around in the Creature Stage for the hours and hours it would take to unlock all the parts. What I might do for Galactic Adventures is just skip straight to the Space Stage and then play around with the whole palette to design my species.

I'm feeling pretty good here at the halfway point. I could easily keep playing my current galaxy for another ten hours, at least (I'm just a couple of badges away from getting the highest possible title and I haven't even come close to the center of the galaxy).

Yet starting over from scratch does have its appeal. Even though the middle stages kind of suck, the whole thing taken together is a wonderful process of discovery. As you progress through the stages you create the story of your people, the way their evolutionary history influences their behavior, the cultural baggage that shapes their technology, their approach to meeting strangers in the vast expanse of space.

Technically, this isn't necessary. You could easily be arbitrary with your choices, and when it comes to designing buildings and vehicles, you could just load a preconstruct and be done with it. But I find that when I'm playing, I can't help myself. Whenever I tweak my species in the creature stage, I always ask myself "what evolutionary pressure pushed for this change?" Or when I design a vehicle in the civilization stage, I wonder how it expresses my peoples' ideology.

It may be that the reason I like Spore as much as I do is because I bring this strictly unnecessary speculation into it. It makes me feel like the world is broader and deeper than it really is. If that's the case, I'm not really playing the game, I'm playing a different game I made up myself that uses Spore as a starting point but then goes off in its own direction.

Or maybe I'm overestimating the power of my imagination and this experience is exactly what the designers intended when they made the game.

Either way, I don't think it matters. I love Spore and I have no problem playing it for another 20 hours.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Spore - 16/20 hours

Spore's Space Stage is a genuinely great game. It's a giant virtual sandbox where there's always something to do. You can terraform planets, and that's a whole minigame unto itself where you gather plant and animal specimens from various life-bearing worlds to diversify the ecosystems of your target worlds. Or you can get involved in the spice trade, going from world to world gathering the six different colors of spice and then selling them for ludicrous prices on worlds where the spice is rare. Or you can just explore the galaxy, zipping from star to star looking for rare artifacts and storybook worlds. Whatever you focus on, there's a nigh-inexhaustible amount of content supporting it.

The biggest weakness of Spore's Space Stage is that you can't delegate anything. To make money from the spice trade, you have to physically move your ship to the different production planets. To fight a war, you have to send your flagship out to every single enemy colony. It's fun, but there are no real tools to help you manage the increasing complexity of large empires and a lot of your activities will be limited by the fact that you can't be in two places at once.

Which isn't really a problem, not if you're like me and enjoy the basic experience of playing Spore. It means there's a large gulf between average and optimized empires, but the AI is pretty chill (only a few of the AI archetypes are so aggressive that you can't easily ally with them) so there's not really this big push to squeeze the most out of your colonies.

What I wind up doing is fucking off, exploring worlds and randomly terraforming likely colony candidates until I run out of cash or health or ship energy, then I swing back to my empire and shift a little spice around until I'm flush again, and then go back to whatever I was doing before. It's a huge time waster, but it's oddly satisfying. As you progress, you gain badges for completing various milestones (terraform x worlds, defeat y pirate raids, etc) and those badges unlock related equipment that makes your ship and colonies more powerful. It's a nice way of providing direction in the vast expanse of the Spore galaxy.

I've still got another four hours to go with my current galaxy, and then another 20 in another galaxy with the Galactic Adventures expansion, but I don't think I'm in any danger of slowing down.  The Spore universe is so full of life and activity that even without the traditional space-empire imperatives, just exploring it all is enough to keep me hooked.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Spore - 10/20 hours

Not much to report from the last five hours of Spore. I didn't quite like my species traits going into the Space era so I started from scratch. Thanks to the RNG, I was able to get an early economic city in the civilization stage, which was nice. In addition to having a better space-stage benefit, the economic victory just feels a lot more satisfying to me.

The biggest thing I noticed from this pass through the ages was that the Creature stage was not nearly long enough. Every time I leave it, I still have dozens of creature parts left to find and huge swaths of the map left to explore. It's theoretically possible to keep puttering around after you unlock the tribal stage, but I find it difficult to ignore the presence of the full progress bar.

Although maybe that's for the best. Spore has an enviable diversity to its resident creatures, but it's sometimes hard to parse that out from randomness. And because you can recognize it as randomness, that lends its diversity an air of homogeneity.

It's not really a problem for me, because a lot of the Spore creatures look really cool and often the custom creations the game periodically downloads wind up doing some interesting and unexpected things with the base creature parts. You never quite get the endless discovery that's promised, but if you've got an eye for detail, it can still be satisfying to explore the galaxy.

Which is what I'm going to do next. I could probably easily spend 20 hours just on the part of the game where I go back to the cell stage again and again in order to experiment with finding the perfect Spore species, but I'm running out of time and the Space stage has a lot to offer.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Spore - 5/20 hours

I forgot how terrible the civilization stage of the game really is. The basic problem with Spore (and I'm saying this as someone who loves the game) is that it dangles the possibility of choice in front of you and then snatches it away.

Take the creature stage, for example. In the creature stage, your diet is restricted by your creature's current mouth. Fair enough. You can find new creature parts by exploring the world and befriending or killing Alpha creatures . . . except for mouths. The only mouths that will spawn in the creature stage are those from the category that matches your diet in the cell stage. Thus, before it was even an option, you had to make a decision about what sort of creature you want to play and work towards it directly, lest you be locked out of your favored category.

Bringing this back to the terribleness of the civilization stage, in order to unify the world and ascend into space, you have to pursue one of three basic strategies - military, religious, or economic. On the surface, it looks like you have a choice . . . except that the military and religious approaches are mechanically identical, and the economic approach is only available if you have access to an economic city. It should go without saying that you have no way of directly choosing whether a city is economic or not. It's all determined by how you finished the tribal stage. If you did it peacefully, your first city is religious. If you did it violently, your first city is military. If you did it with an exact balance between peace and violence then (and only then) is your first city economic.

Given that first city, it is only possible to change strategies if you manage to capture an opposing city of the appropriate type . . . provided one spawns close enough to you that you can change your strategy early. It's a completely fucked up way of doing things that manages to sap all the energy from what should be a dynamic and interesting stage of the game.

Yet I can't really stay mad at Spore. There's just something about its presentation that cuts right through my cynicism. The colors are so vibrant. The tools for shaping creatures, vehicles, and buildings are so easy to use. The results of your actions can be surprisingly diverse, given the simple palette that you're given. It's like playing with digital play-dough. Even when the rules are unnecessarily restrictive, there's just something incredibly pleasurable about creating new things and watching them move through the world.

It's enough even to make me forget about the terrible civilization stage.

Spore - Initial Thoughts

I'm going to go with a break in my usual format today because Steam has decided, for inexplicable reasons, to break Spore down into 3 different games. Ordinarily, that would mean that I'd play it for 60 hours, to get my 20 hours of completion on all three expansion packs, but this time, I'm only going to go for 40 because, while Spore: Galactic Adventures adds a significant new wrinkle to the game that makes it worth standing on its own (while also having a single massive flaw that makes it worth avoiding - but more on that later), Spore: Creepy and Cute Parts Pack just adds some new parts to the creature stage without changing vanilla's gameplay in any significant fashion.

I know all this because I actually own the disc version of the game and have played it extensively. I wound up buying it for Steam way back when I upgraded my computer last year because I'm lazy and didn't want to reinstall from disc. Also, like Civilization IV, it turned out that when the game was discounted, it was cheaper to buy the whole bundle then it was to purchase the one remaining expansion pack I didn't already own.

I'm looking forward to playing this game again because I love the freedom it gives you to design your own creatures and customize their technology. On the other hand, Spore is also justly notorious for being incredibly uneven. The middle portions of the game (the tribal and civilization eras) are completely undercooked. Maybe there are some good ideas buried inside them, but their win conditions are so narrow that there's almost no room for the customization that is this game's greatest strength. The creature phase is fun, but overcoming its challenges requires you to optimize your creature's parts even when you might prefer the weaker options cosmetically. The cell stage is a fun little minigame, but totally shallow. And the space stage can be objectively great, but it is grindy as hell.

All together, Spore is one of those games that's deeply flawed, but nonetheless a cherished part of my gaming life. I anticipate having no problems with its rough patches and sailing through 40 hours as if they were no time at all.

Redshirt - 20/20 hours

This was a difficult game to search for on the internet. In addition to being a small indie game, "Redshirt" is also a commonly used piece of slang. So I never learned the function of mastering a job (aside from opening up the next rank of employment, but then you can master more than one job per rank or the jobs of the final ranks). It also made the additional victory conditions a little hard to figure out (romance someone, but who - befriend powerful people, but which ones). I wound up winning again, but by the same method I used the first time.

My final opinion about Redshirt is that it's very clever. This is both a strength and a weakness. The strength is that it offers a novel experience, one completely unlike anything else I've ever played. The weakness is that once you get past the cleverness, that's all there is. I'm glad I played this game, because it broadened my horizons, but even though I still have almost a dozen achievements left to unlock, I don't feel like I have any unfinished business with Redshirt.

It's pretty neat that we live in a time when such purely conceptual games as Redshirt can exist. There's a part of me that wishes I could find the "perfect" video game - the one which allow the virtual me to do everything the real me is interested in. But if I start to think about how one would actually go about creating such a game, it becomes clear that it would be an unwarranted extravagance. You'd basically have to pile game on top of game and compress them into some unholy chimera, with the result that every individual aspect would be subpar (or prohibitively expensive) on its own.

That's the advantage of gaming's current creative explosion. You may not be able to get everything in one neat little package, but small, specialized games can offer incredible diversity, well-implemented, and at reasonable prices. Redshirt is probably not the last word in simulated social-media games - there's a lot more that can be done with characterization and setting - but it is a fine place to start.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Redshirt - 15/20 hours

Lately, I've been running afoul of Redshirt's biggest flaw. It is utterly homogeneous. Being a Bridge Turbolift Concierge shows you the exact same job screen as being a Transporter Accident Cleanup Specialist (perhaps thankfully in that latter case, but still). On your off time, going to the holodeck for an Old West adventure looks exactly like having a romantic dinner in your quarters.

I'm not sure what I want, exactly, but I feel like the game would be a lot better if there was unique art for all of the different events, to better give a sense of depth and texture. Now that the novelty of the faux social media has worn off, I want to do more to explore the setting. As it is, Megalodon-9 doesn't really feel like a real place, and your various friends, coworkers, and lovers don't feel like real people.

This has resulted in the game becoming an exercise in calculated number-shuffling. That's not something I intrinsically have a problem with, but it is kind of dull to write about.

The real question is "how realistic is the game?" It's a satire, but does that satire strike home? I honestly can't say - I've never been in the sort of emotional-hothouse environment the game simulates and I don't know what effect a determinedly manipulative actor would have on that environment.

However, if I had to make a guess, I'd say that Redshirt's satire is superficial at best. People have moods and memories and rough edges. They respond differently to those they're attracted to and are inclined to be curious about the actions of the popular people. Given the oversimplification of the game's social model (though, to be fair, there are aspects to it I don't understand), I think the most you can say is that it satirizes common social media prejudices.

I'd love to see a more fully fleshed out version of this game, or perhaps have a more complex game incorporate social-media backstabbing into its basic gameplay, but for now I'd have to say that Redshirt is only really good for the first six hours or so. It's the sort of game that's worth playing through once, but which loses its luster with repetition.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Redshirt - 9/20 hours

I need to take a break from this game for a little while. I made a huge mistake and it's unexpectedly upset me, emotionally. I noticed that I had a high relationship bar with a certain person so I initiated a relationship. Then I applied for a job later that same day. And the hiring manager was my new girlfriend, who not only denied me the job, but promptly broke up with me, convinced that I was only dating her to advance my career.

It kind of broke my heart.

My first instinct was to go "oh, fuck, where's the undo button?" But there is no undo button, so I was stuck with my horrendous faux pas.

I mean, I'm not dealing with real people here. They're not even particularly well-drawn characters. All I know about them is their top three interests. Other than that they're complete ciphers.

Nonetheless, being called out by one on fake-social media was mortifying.

I guess one measure of the success of a game is whether you buy into its world. And if I can experience awe at the breathtaking vista of a Skyrim sunset, why shouldn't I bury my head in shame at social humiliation on the Megalodon-9?

Still, I've never found myself wishing for smell-o-vision to better immerse myself in all those rpg sewer levels, so maybe their are certain fantastic experiences I'd rather not have.

I'm sure that my current character could recover. My last one managed to sidestep the racist hiring manager by a lot of frantic last-minute grinding, just barely escaping the space-station with just a month to go. However, I'm not sure I want to try. I just feel so ashamed. Even though strategic bed-hopping wasn't my aim, to give the appearance of impropriety means I wasn't being aware enough of my environment or the digital feelings of my simulated coworkers.

What I'm faced with is a game that has provoked a strong emotional reaction, one I'm not eager to repeat. I'm afraid my current character is done for. Just seeing her is going to remind me of my mistake. I'll have to take a few hours to cool down and start a new file from scratch. And I'm going to make myself a vow - no more strategic friending, even if it happens to be really convenient.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Redshirt - 6/20 hours

I feel like I should write a think-piece about this game. It seems tailor-made for critics to pick apart, to say things about the fickleness of relationships in a digital age, the intractability of entrenched power structures, and the way we construct our identities as a way of adapting to the world around us. For example, my playthrough so far has been perfectly didactic. I managed to skip several career ranks by befriending the hiring managers and using social media to acquire jobs for which I've been less than qualified, but when I finally got up to the third-highest rank, there was a job in the second-to-highest rank for which I was perfectly qualified, having to resort to no social media shenanigans whatsoever to attain, but when I applied for the job, I was completely shut out because the hiring manager refused to even consider a human for the position.

I mean, that means something doesn't it? It's not often that a game just straight-up sandbags you with racism. This is an important issue with relevance to society at large. I should say something profound and insightful about it . . .

It kind of sucks, you know.

That's all I've got. I mean, it's a little weird the way that I can be totally unprepared for all the rank 3 and 4 and 5 jobs and then find a rank 6 position that fits my skillset exactly. How many people could accomplish great things if given the opportunity, but will never get the chance because they can't overcome the arbitrary obstacles that are placed in their way in the name of "paying your dues?" Add to that the fact that there are all sorts of unwritten rules, like the way that your skill at networking is an important predictor of your success in virtually every field, regardless of its relationship to the actual tasks of the field itself.  And then, even if you survive all of that, maybe the gatekeepers just won't like you and dismiss you for some arbitrary reason outside of your control.

Really, the big novelty of Redshirt is that it doesn't bother setting up plausible deniability. It just straight up tells you that you didn't get the job because of your race. In real life, there are a thousand reasons to fail, and in all likelihood, when you don't get that job they'll tell you "they went with a more qualified candidate" (if they bother to tell you anything at all) rather than just baldly state "there is no way someone like you will ever get this job."

Whether that's better or worse is hard to say.

What is not hard to say is that Jo Spaceman is almost certainly going to die. Rising up the ranks to become the Commander's Assistant was my main plan for avoiding whatever ominous event is at the end of the game's countdown timer. But with this roadblock in my way, there's no chance whatsoever of getting up to rank 7. Right now, all I can hope is that the racist hiring manager suffers an unfortunate Away Team accident or that maybe it's not too late for me to grind up my sucking up skills and thus skip rank 6 entirely.

Thus is the life of a Redshirt, I guess.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Redshirt - 2/20 hours

The main thing I'm learning from Redshirt so far is that social media is an emotional minefield, where relationships can ebb and surge without warning and where the slightest misstep can have ramifications not only in one's personal life, but in their professional life as well.

Maybe that's accurate? I've never actually used social media in that way, but through cultural osmosis, I've been able to gather that some people take it very seriously (although perhaps that's just a fictional conceit). It's kind of fun, in the way that video-game sociopathy often can be, but I certainly wouldn't want to live through it.

While I'm pretty sure "Facebook Drama Simulator" is a compelling enough idea to stand on its own, Redshirt also has the advantage of being a platform for some fun Star Trek references. Most of it is pretty broad, but I've noticed a couple of shout outs to some specific episodes that convince me the makers are genuine fans of the show (I'm guessing TNG is probably their touchstone, but then again, maybe it just seems that way because it is mine).

There was this pretty great episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called "Lower Decks" and at its best, Redshirt is like playing a time-management visual novel based on that episode. At its worst, Redshirt is like playing a time-management visual novel based on randomly generated science fiction cliches. So far, it's averaging out to a pretty fun and subtly addictive game experience, but I am seriously worried about the game's longevity. I'm already seeing repeats of various NPC statuses and combined with the fact that the personality simulation seems like it must be pretty shallow, is going to give characters a kind of "samey" feel to them.

It's like, there's this guy who I have a history with - we used to date and then he dumped me for a gelatinous alien creature and shortly afterwards, the creature started taunting me viciously about how it hated me . . . and it would be nice if that sort of emergent story had details which gave it a sense of specificity. At the time it was very memorable, because I wasn't at all expecting it, but the more of the game I play, the more it just seems like an inevitable consequence of the RNG.

I'm pretty sure I have at least 4 or 5 hours left to go with my current character (assuming Jo Spaceman doesn't meet a sudden and ignominious end on an Away Mission, that is), and seeing as how there are five possible endings, I'm not worried about making the deadline. However, it's also possible that two hours in and I've already seen the bulk of what the game has to offer. There does seem to be an overarching plot about a mysterious and deadly Federation mission, and that promises to be pretty interesting, but it is going to be the small details that make or break this game.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go trashtalk a space-jellyfish.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Redshirt - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Redshirt is the comedy sci-fi sim about social networking aboard a space station, starring the station's most ambitious low-ranking peon: you! Navigate the professional and interpersonal politics of the ubiquitous "Spacebook" to curry favor among friends and colleagues. As intense intergalactic conflict rages around you, it's up to you to accrue those all-important "likes" on your status updates! Whether you're looking for love, opportunities for promotion, or even a chance to play Zero-G golf with the captain, you can schmooze your way through social circles and claw your way up the career ladder. Perhaps you too can finally achieve the dream of an off-station transfer, or even the Redshirt's opportunity of a lifetime: being sent on an away-mission!

Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

I thought it looked unique and this was back when when I was buying things just because they looked interesting.

Expectations And Prior Experience

I'm not what you'd call a social media maven, so a game based on social media is kind of a double-edged sword. Even aside from the sci-fi angle, it will be a departure from the routine of my everyday life.

My biggest worry is that the user reviews are really poor. I'm guessing that means Redshirt is a one-trick pony and that its central conceit gets old fast. That's not a huge problem, per se, but if there's only two hours of game here, this blog is going to get very weird.

Startopia - 20/20 hours

I managed to power through Mission 7 and seize control of the station through force of arms. After that, Mission 8 was kind of a breather where I had to attract monks, pilgrims, and penitents to my station. Then came Mission 9 . . .

It's exactly the sort of mission I always claim to want - you and three other administrators are on the same station and the station owners will give a valuable contract to whoever attracts the most tourist income . . . but the catch is that they charge outrageous rent and if you ever miss a payment, you're out.

Which, okay, sounds tough, but fair. Except when I started getting into the competition, these little assholes would come out of nowhere and blow up my shit.

I was having enough trouble just keeping ahead of the expenses. Having to pay death benefits and recruitment fees for replacements more or less stalled my growth and I saw no way of breaking out of the cycle.

I subsequently ragequit and started a sandbox game. That's when I realized I was being too hard on Mission 9. I'd thought that all the bombs and stuff were just part of the mission's challenge, sabotage by my competition. However, in sandbox mode I learned that they were actually just an inevitable consequence of my low security rating.

Apparently, in the future, terrorists are ubiquitous and have a huge hatred for space-stations. So, I don't know, Mission 9 isn't so bad. With a little practice, I was able to get security under control in sandbox mode, but given the mission's constraints, it's going to take a lot of practice to get things right.

But, of course, I'm out of time.

My final opinion of Startopia is that it has a lot going for it, but when the rubber hit the road, it lacked a certain something. I think what it is is printed text. I'd have loved to see my population in numbers, my budget broken down by building category, my security by type of vulnerability. What information there was available was in simple iconic form that you could glance at to get the general gist of what's going on, but that was it. As a result, I never really felt like I had a solid foundation to build upon.

But it's possible that other people would see this as a strength. Here is a strategy game where you don't need to delve into a dry world of numbers and charts, you can simply build what feels right at an given time and you'll probably do okay. Success, then, is not a matter of reaching some numerical benchmark, but of having something that looks like it's thriving.

I can see the appeal of that. Startopia may not have hooked me, personally, but I'm not going to call it a bad game. I think I have to acknowledge that I have a very particular formula that attracts me and that some things don't quite fit. It's like a finely made suit that is one size too small.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Startopia - 14/20 hours

I'll confess - I've been avoiding this game, dragging my feet when it comes to playing and blogging it. I really don't like mission 7. You have to build up a military force and drive out squatters from your space station. Which means that even when the mission is going well, it is characterized by chaos and death. I'm finding that I like witnessing my neighbors getting their stuff wrecked almost as little as I like seeing my own stuff get wrecked. Almost.

This would ordinarily signal the end of my time with the campaign mode and the beginning of my time in a no-opponent sandbox, except that I have the sneaking suspicion that I've not yet been introduced to all of the game's mechanics. There are still two alien species I've never even seen and a whole bar in the (admittedly minimal) status graph that has yet to be explained.

Which means I more or less have to soldier on (pun unintended but serendipitous) until I make it to the end of the campaign. I think I might be able to use a console command to skip past this mission, and it's likely that I will, but before I do that, I'm going to at least try to give it another good push.

Regardless of how it turns out, I think I can now say with authority that I hate it when a city-building game becomes an RTS. I mean, it seems like all of the most interesting ones do. Anno 2070 has a neat sci-fi setting and cool technology, but then so much of the campaign was building boats to cause mayhem with your enemies, and it sort of felt like a waste. Tropico 4 was a little better at it, but even then you had rebels. I understand in both cases military confrontation is key to the games' challenge, but I guess I like economic and social challenges so much more that I resent the intrusion of even a little fighting.

Which is weird, because I will play and enjoy games that feature violence on a personal scale. Give me control of The Boss in the Saints Row series and I will punch any number of goons in the nuts, but make me responsible for a base or a city or a society, and suddenly I'm all like risk must be minimized and the status quo preserved! It's a major blind-spot when it comes to competitive strategy games (as I was reminded when I played Star Ruler 2 multiplayer recently), but usually with these single-layer sim games, I can just sidestep the problem using the game settings . . .

Unless, of course, I run into a mandatory combat-themed campaign level.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Startopia - 10/20 hours

The campaign is still in extended tutorial mode, but as the mechanics get more and more involved, I've come to the conclusion that the paucity of the game's information presentation is not just a flaw, but a fatal flaw. The last couple of missions have been fairly open-ended in their goals. Mission 6 introduced the biodeck and required me to expand my colony to four station segments and mission 7 is the first combat mission and requires me to eliminate the AI residents of the station.

Straightforward enough, but all I can think about is how I don't know whether my station is capable of growth, what kind of population I can support, whether or not particular buildings are profitable, whether or not I have enough maintenance and security bots. It's just a mess. I'm kind of dreading finishing the campaign and having to go into sandbox mode. Without a concrete goal, I'm not sure I can handle managing a station in such complete ignorance.

Which is a shame, because at its core, Startopia is a charming game. The aliens are cute, the tech tree has a logical progression, the curved environment of the space station is both unique and visually appealing. There's a lot to like about it, and I suppose if one played enough to gain a reflexive intuition for the life of the station, it wouldn't be so bad, but I can't help but think that it would be so much better if the management aspect of the game weren't pure guesswork.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Startopia - 6/20 hours

The extended tutorial continues. Which would be fine, except as the mechanics get more abstract, the campaign missions get worse and worse at explaining them.

For example, I just finished a mission where you have to research technology by taking your various items and feeding them into laboratories. Simple enough. Except that it took me a lot longer than it should have due to an ambiguity in the way the instructions were phrased.

See, when you start out researching, the game tells you to feed generic materials into your analyzer. When you do, more sophisticated formulas pop out. But then, at least to my reading, it's not clear what you're supposed to do next. I somehow got under the impression that you were supposed to feed even more generic materials into the laboratory, in the hopes that technology would randomly spawn.

However, after playing that mission for at least an hour, I got frustrated and looked it up in a guide. It turns out that what you're supposed to do is actually build the things you unlock with research and then feed them back into the analyzer. Then, when you unlock a new technology that way, you do it again, and that's how tech advances. In retrospect, it seems obvious, but it honestly didn't even occur to me.

Which I suppose is the biggest flaw of Startopia. It's not very well documented. It doesn't really help you play it. It doesn't have the wide variety of charts, graphs, and maps that I've come to expect from my base-building games. What information there is is very simply presented. If you want to figure out the mood of a particular resident, you have to actually click on them and ask them about their various needs, to which they'll respond with a head nod if the need is unsatisfied, a head shake if the need is adequately satisfied and a noncommittal hand gesture if the need is partially satisfied.

It's super cute, but an at-a-glance information screen would have been a lot more useful.

So I guess this is going to be one of those games where I only ever dip my toe into its depths. While the graphs in more complex strategy games can, admittedly, be overwhelming from time to time, I think I need that total informational awareness. If I'm to look down upon my subjects as a benevolent god, I need to know everything about everything. At the very least, I think I should have information comparable to that which would be available to a "real" space-station administrator.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Startopia - 3/20 hours

I've been playing the campaign missions for Startopia for the last couple of hours and they still feel like an extended tutorial. There's a lot of different buildings that have not yet been unlocked and many of the nuances of base building have not yet been introduced. Like, in the formal tutorial, it explained the controls behind fighting, but I haven't actually faced an enemy.

Not that I'm eager to. So far, Startopia feels less like I'm building an independent space colony and more like I'm managing the concourse at a bustling spaceport. You've got various aliens coming and going on their simulated business, using the facilities and leaving their garbage behind. It's a more interesting game than I originally thought it was, and I'm not looking forward to the inevitable introduction of territorial conflict.

The other notable thing about this game is that one of your entertainment facilities is a space brothel. They don't call it that, but I'm not sure the term "lovenest" is all that euphemistic. The game is moderately progressive in that the Sirens, the only alien species capable of becoming space-hookers, are both male and female, though it immediately loses those points because only the Sirens have identifiable female models. I suppose it's possible the other aliens are of either sex, but if so the sexual dimorphism is not apparent in their design. So, you know, consider Startopia officially finger-wagged for only including women as space-prostitutes.

Startopia reminds me a lot of Tropico, in both its gameplay and approach to humor. What is it with the small-scale village-building genre and unrelenting cynicism? Maybe designers feel like they have to walk back the cutesy, glossy look of the graphics with a hearty dose of nihilism. Or maybe it's that they intentionally create a sugary sweet exterior so that the game's true heart of bitter sarcasm will really pop by contrast. Now that I think about it, Dungeon Keeper is the same way.

Is this just a historical oddity? Is it even a real trend? I mean it's probably just a coincidence. The old Texas sharpshooter fallacy. If I wanted to know for sure, I'd have to create a taxonomy of games, group them by similarity, and then see if cartoony-looking base-building games that let you examine individual people had an uncommon occurrence of irreverent and cynical black humor.

It feels to me like the answer has to be "sort of," but I'm not really willing to do the work to research a definitive answer and my sample size of three is not really big enough to make a strong statement one way or the other. But it's certainly something to keep in mind if I ever play another game of this sort.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Startopia - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

A once thriving network of space stations and planets have been left lifeless, redundant scars of the apocalypse. Into this age of darkness comes light. You will lead the way in rebuilding the network of space stations to a standard accepted by the individual alien races, attracting them to harness their expertise and research new technologies. Thus begins the hilarious battle of wits and cunning, full of daring escapades.

Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

You know, I can't say. I think I may be a sucker for anything with the word "star" in its title.

Expectations And Prior Experience

I hadn't realized until I double-checked the store page, but this is a game from 2001. I imagine it will either run smoothly on my computer or get tangled up in some kind of compatibility blood-feud with Windows 10.

But assuming it actually works, it looks kind of interesting. It's got a colorful and cartoony aesthetic and the base management seems to be pretty deep (if the screenshots on the store page are anything to go by).

I'm a little worried that the base-building might be overshadowed by RTS elements, but then I just got done playing a couple of pretty intense RTS games and I enjoyed the hell out of them, so my hand-wringing is probably completely unjustified.

Star Ruler 2 - 20/20 hours.

I don't have any official records or anything, but I think this may well be the fastest I've ever cleared a game. I've actually gotten about 23 hours into the game over the course of the last 48.

I think this qualifies as a success.

It's all been such a blur I'm not sure what to say about it. I tried out the different aliens species and really liked the robots. Ironically, the best part of playing them was the fact that I could cut out a significant portion of the planet development tree because they didn't need food or water. This allowed more of my planets to be directly useful to the empire. The only downside is that you have to spend production on their population growth. I love it when a faction in a 4X game tweaks the basic rules.

I also stayed up way too late yesterday trying out various mods. Some were subtle, and did nothing more than tweak the income/maintenance balance and they looked interesting to me because that would let me field more and larger ships (my favorite part of the original Star Ruler), but I never really got a chance to put them through their paces, so I can't be sure about how they effect the game balance.

What was more interesting was a massive overhaul mod that added a bunch of new technologies, new alien types, gameplay tweaks like sensors, and even new art assets for things like ships. It looked pretty cool (I love mods that make already complicated games even more complicated), but again, I didn't get too into it because my plan was to try out all the vanilla factions first (something I did not quite finish, by the way).

Finally, just a couple of hours ago, I got a chance to play in a multiplayer game. I got my ass thoroughly handed to me. I'm not going to try and do a defeat post-mortem, because that strikes me as bad sportsmanship, but I will say that playing against a human is very different than playing against the AI.

Overall, Star Ruler 2 has gone from a game I knew basically nothing about to one of my recent favorites. I'm not sure whether it has the staying power to compete with games like Alpha Centauri or Endless Legend, but I have absolutely no regrets about this purchase.

I understand that both Star Ruler games were made by a studio with just two employees, which means that if I were in the habit of grading with handicaps, this series would be probably my all-time #2 (Minecraft, I believe, is a better game with a smaller development team). However, even without any special considerations, it is a strong contender for the pantheon of the greats.

I've played a lot of strategy 4X games in my time, and I don't think I've ever played one that is so bursting with creativity. Some of its ideas, like the diplomacy, are extremely bold, but even the stuff that is more conventional still bears the marks of experimentation. Planet management is thoroughly unique. The fleet system is an elegant way to handle the logistics of hundreds of ships battling at once. The zoom function is incredible (something I forgot to mention about the first game as well - you can get right down to eye level with fighter-sized ships).

I really want to play Star Ruler 2 again. I don't know if I will, because I've got 88 other games on my list, and who knows what will catch my fancy before the end of the blog, but I'm holding out hope that when it's all said and done, this game will have made enough of an impression on me. It fills me with hope that a small team could do something quite so incredible. I almost feel like, if I put my mind to it, I could make a cool game on my own (I couldn't, of course, not without years of training and some elusive spark of natural talent).

I'm kind of sorry to have gotten through this game so fast. I could easily play it another 20-100 hours, exploring the nuances of the resources system, the difference between the alien species, and the changes made by modders, but I've said the same thing about a dozen different games in the past. Time to move on. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Star Ruler 2 - 11/20 hours

So I guess I really got sucked into this game. I've been playing it almost every waking moment since yesterday. I actually lost sleep over it.

The funny thing is that Star Ruler 2 is not all that much like the original Star Ruler. There are similarities - some of the aliens have returned, and certain planetary anomalies are the same - but Star Ruler 2 is glossier, sleeker. It is not quite so driven by menus and text and displays more of its information in graphical form. Technology, in particular, is no longer an open-ended math problem. As a result, the original Star Ruler's most striking figure - the breathtaking scale of its exploding numbers isn't really present. At least not to the same degree.

You still have very large fleets, but the way you gain and deploy them has changed. You now have to center a fleet around a flagship and then build support ships that hang around it in a cloud, and the ultimate size of your fleet is determined by your flagship's logistics rating. This can be very generous, especially with the larger ships, but maintenance costs act as a kind of soft cap. Too large a flagship and you'll wreck your empire's budget. . .

 Which is probably better from both a realism and a gameplay perspective, but I admit I'll miss having 10,000 planet-sized ships in the late game.

But what Star Ruler 2 lacks in gross excess, it makes up for in neat ideas. It probably has the best diplomacy system of any 4X game I've ever played. Basically, your empire earns influence points by having certain resources and building in play and you can spend those resources to by diplomatic action cards. Some cards give you special diplomatic actions like building a powerful university or annexing a star system. When you play these cards, your action goes up for a vote in the galactic senate, and you can play other cards to influence the vote - either to support the propositions of you and your allies or to block the propositions of your enemies. It's very engaging. So much so that the back and forth of the cardgame can actually distract me from the other business of empire-building, which has to be a first for me in a 4X diplomacy system.

Planet management is also kind of fun. There are different tiers of resources and to build up a bigger and better planet, you have to arrange complex trade webs where each planet of a certain rank is supported by a gradually widening pyramid of lower-ranked planets (to get a maxed-out level 5 planet, you need about 38 level 0 planets). Figuring out how to arrange the random assortment of worlds you start out with in order to maximize your empire's potential is exactly the sort of challenge I thrive upon.

The biggest flaw of Star Ruler 2 is that total conquest still appears to be the only victory condition. I haven't run into it as a huge roadblock yet, because I've mostly been experimenting with the different factions and learning about the tech tree and planet management systems, but if I ever get around to playing the late game, I'm certain it will annoy me to have to go around conquering everyone just to get a win.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Star Ruler 2 - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Take command of a vast interstellar empire and safeguard your species from total extinction in a procedurally generated 3D galaxy (with the option to flatten it) from 1 System to 10,000+! Prove your species' ingenuity through a deep and intricate combat system where anything (from individual components on ships to the stars themselves) is a target of opportunity.

Twist other Empires into submitting to your galaxy-class wit with diplomacy and wheel-and-deal your way to supremacy.

Research new kinds of weapons, engines, shields, and more, all of which retain their unique benefits as the game progresses, with a research web whose contents are shuffled every game at your option.

Exploit interstellar phenomena such as asteroid belts and stars and exploit them for yourself or destroy them to deny your foes. Create and destroy new worlds through advanced technological research.

Match your strategy against up to 10 other opponents (online or LAN-linked). Save the game when dawn breaks and boot it back up at dusk. It isn't over until you say it is! Drop in and drop out at any point; disconnecting players will not disrupt the game!

Your weapons, your ships, your rules: Almost the entire game can be modified through Notepad! Easily add new models and particle effects to the game with “out-of-the-box” developer tools. Create new weapons in seconds; create new AIs through scripts! The Galaxy is yours!

Previous Playtime

46 minutes

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

I bought it as part of a bundle with the original Star Ruler and for exactly the same reason - I like complicated strategy games and the store page made a pretty strong pitch. Of the two games in the bundle, Star Ruler 2 was the primary one that I was interested in, but of course I have a weakness for complete series'.

Expectations and Prior Experience

I've already played the tutorial and the game's complicated planet management and deep tech tree are enough to convince me I'll probably enjoy it. I'm a little worried that it will be as strongly combat focused as the first Star Ruler, but given that this wasn't enough to turn me off that game, I'll probably have a pretty good time.

Star Ruler - 20/20 hours

My last few hours with the game were mostly spent experimenting. I did manage to win a total victory in a 100-star map, but I found that mode of play to be highly uneven. Expanding your borders and creating new ship designs was fun, but cleaning up the various enemy empires when they inevitably declared war on you was fairly tedious. It's one of those situations where you win long before the game is formally over, but the AI can't acknowledge that, so you're stuck fighting a completely one-sided war over territory that doesn't really matter.

Normally, I enjoy that, but the slowdown that comes from trying to move hundreds of ships in a dozen different directions at once is kind of a bummer.

Luckily, Star Ruler gives you a lot of leeway setting up your game options. So I created an ultra-small galaxy with four stars and four factions. That was a bust because the different species quickly reached a stalemate where their defenses were basically impregnable (I once launched an assault on a planet with 180 defensive satellites, which is kind of a ridiculous number to face with the sort of force that can be assembled from a single star system).

The next thing I tried was a huge universe of 500 stars, but only 1 AI opponent. That looked to be shaping up pretty well, with each of us controlling roughly half the galaxy. Unfortunately, just as we were gearing up for our epic clash of civilizations, the game crashed.

My final experiment was to tinker with the research cost settings. You can actually adjust the cost of technology so that it scales slower than your increase in research power from advanced laboratory buildings. I tried this on a solo map with one star system, because I was curious if you could build a ringworld without a galaxy spanning economic base, provided your tech was high enough. It turns out you can, but it's trickier than it appears.

My first attempt I set the, I crashed the game, presumably due to some kind of overflow error.

My next time through, I adjusted the tech speed down quite a bit, but then I ran into another problem - my economy crashed because the cost of high-tech buildings was far too high to actually build without slight less high tech buildings, but my tech was increasing faster than the buildings could be built.

So I fiddled with the numbers again, setting the tech rate as low as it could go while still allowing for runaway geometric growth. Then I carefully micromanaged my production and research so that I could keep up with the costs. It was pretty cool. I built a ringworld in less than a second and then used the ringworld to create some things that were even more ridiculous - like a size 10 million ship which dwarfed my entire star system.

I think, if I played the game again, I would have to set the tech growth rate to either be equal to the lab growth rate or just a little bit less, so that the soft cap on tech would be in the 100+ range (as opposed to the about 30-40 levels you get on a moderately sized galaxy) because creating bizarre, game-breaking ships was definitely the best part of the experience.

I'd say that Star Ruler has two big flaws that keep it from being a truly great game. First, diplomacy is a joke. Not once was I ever able to get a decent deal from the AI. Either they'd hold out against peace even in the face of their inevitable extinction or they'd ask for rare resources far too early in the game for me to possibly have them or they'd offer redundant deals long after their available quantities of resources had ceased to be anything other than a rounding error for my empire.

The other big flaw of Star Ruler is that it's unstable as hell. Even when I wasn't trying to break the game by flaunting its sense of scale it would frequently crash or freeze for no apparent reason. I really enjoyed the game's incredible scope, but not so much that I can overlook having to restart or alt-tab out every hour or so.

I'm actually really looking forward to playing this game's sequel. From what I could gather based on the tutorials, they're actually quite different games, but if Star Ruler's spirit of bold embrace of excess carries over into a game that doesn't fall apart every time I breathe on it hard, then I will be a very happy man.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Star Ruler - 13/20 hours

I think I may have broken this game. I decided to play on a 500 star universe against a half-dozen other opponents and I was doing really well. I'd colonized half the galaxy in the space of just a couple of minutes, thanks to my technological superiority and I was gradually getting things under control. Then, one of the AIs decides to declare war on me, for no real reason I can discern, and I have to turn my massive manufacturing prowess to military matters.

So I go into my systems control panel and press the button that selects all of my currently idle planets at once and I order them all to build a heavily-armed battleship. Then I wait a second and do it again, in order to take advantage of all the various planets in my empire that can build a battleship in less than a second. Then I keep doing it.

Before I know it, I have more than 20,000 high tech battleships. When a single one could probably solo the average enemy star system. It's a glorious feeling, but there is a problem.

Modeling that many objects at once makes even my new computer cry out in agony. The simulation speed dropped to a crawl, even when run at 10x. Plus, it turns out that I don't have what it takes, mentally, to single-handedly command a massive space armada in a coordinated galactic invasion. Basically, it involved giving thousands of ships dozens or hundreds of commands in the space of just a few minutes. I suppose I could have taken my time and systematically eliminated the enemy with my overwhelming force, but it offended my sensibilities to do so when I had the resources to win with a single wave.

So I just declared myself the victor of that game and restarted on a much smaller map, with only 100 stars.

I then lost patience a couple of times when faced with early-game rushes that I was inadequately prepared to deal with (I hate to go to war with anything less than an absolute economic, technological, and numerical supremacy). My most recent game is going well except that I'm constantly fighting off pirate attacks. Though I can at least credit this with keeping my military up to date.

Star Ruler has more combat and less empire management than I normally like in my 4X games, but the feeling of snowballing when you cross some nebulous threshold and your empire's power starts feeding into itself in a rapidly growing feedback loop is so amazing that I'm willing to overlook it. That said, I'm not sure about this game's intended mode of play. At high levels of empire power you can do a ton of stuff very rapidly, but you don't really have the tools to manage them effectively. When I was dominating the 500-star galaxy the soft limit to my strength was as much the cognitive load as it was the relative weakness of my computer.

I'm nonetheless pleased to be playing this game, though. Even if I'm not totally in control, I like fiddling with planets and setting my tech order and designing bigger and better ships. It may just be the optimization of numbers, when boiled down to its purest essence, but it turns out that optimizing numbers is something I really like to do.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Star Ruler - 5/20 hours

Like many 4X games I've played, Star Ruler has managed to suck me in, though it was kind of a rough start. My AI opponents were very aggressive, declaring war against me with no provocation and while I was still struggling to figure out the tech tree. Luckily, Star Ruler has a feature no other strategy game would bother with - you can turn off all of the AI competition and play in an empty galaxy.

The first time I did this, I was swarmed by pirates within minutes and thoroughly wiped out. The next few times I did it, I was able to meet the pirates with a fleet that wasn't quite large enough. They just kept on coming, more than I could handle.

So I turned pirates off too.

It was an interesting way to explore the tech tree. I never really got a good benchmark for ship power, but I did get to see a few cool civilian things. There is something awe-inspiring about having a hundred well-developed worlds, going into your systems-control screen, ordering them all to build exactly one colony ship, and then seeing a massive swarm spread out into the galaxy. Then setting the speed up to 10x, waiting a couple of minutes, and then doing it all again. Spreading out with geometric growth is just an incredible experience. I highly recommend it.

Alas, I have not yet built a ringworld however. I've started one, but the resource requirements are an three orders of magnitude higher than what my planets can churn out. I expect that it requires mastery of the use of haulers and other resource-shifting tricks. I need to figure out some way to concentrate a galaxy's worth of resources into a single system.

It's a learning process, and one I enjoy despite the fact that I'm basically just playing solitaire. There's a lot about this game I still don't understand and the opportunity to explore without the pressure to win is one I value.

I think I'll start another solo game in a smaller galaxy and see if I can build at least one ringworld (and perhaps some other high-end ships) and maybe get a handle on the game's more powerful tech combos. Who knows, I might get through the whole 20 hours without ever going up against an actual opponent.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Star Ruler - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Take command of a vast interstellar empire and safeguard your species from total extinction in a procedurally generated 3D galaxy (with the option to flatten it) from 1 System to 10,000+! Prove your species' ingenuity through a deep and intricate combat system where anything (from individual components on ships to the stars themselves) is a target of opportunity.

Twist other Empires into submitting to your galaxy-class wit with diplomacy and wheel-and-deal your way to supremacy.

Research new kinds of weapons, engines, shields, and more, all of which retain their unique benefits as the game progresses, with a research web whose contents are shuffled every game at your option.

Exploit interstellar phenomena such as asteroid belts and stars and exploit them for yourself or destroy them to deny your foes. Create and destroy new worlds through advanced technological research.

Match your strategy against up to 10 other opponents (online or LAN-linked). Save the game when dawn breaks and boot it back up at dusk. It isn't over until you say it is! Drop in and drop out at any point; disconnecting players will not disrupt the game!

Your weapons, your ships, your rules: Almost the entire game can be modified through Notepad! Easily add new models and particle effects to the game with “out-of-the-box” developer tools. Create new weapons in seconds; create new AIs through scripts! The Galaxy is yours!

Previous Playtime

79 minutes

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

I got this game back in a period when I was shopping heavily and compulsively, so I didn't really have a great reason for buying it. I'd been periodically following conversations about various 4X games and the Star Ruler series came up in a favorable light several times, so when it went on sale I bought it.

That said, it was one of my more confident purchases. You can build ringworlds! I love sci-fi megastructures and not enough games have them, so I'll pretty much jump on any game that throws them in. It's a real draw for my builder instincts.

Expectations and Prior Experience

I played the tutorial twice. The game crashed about 90% of the way through. Of course, I had no way of knowing that at the time, so I had to start from scratch just in case.

Random bugs notwithstanding, what I saw of Star Ruler has filled me with optimism. The game looks nice and complicated with plenty of planetary development and logistics. My only worry is that it also seems very military-focused and so it might be a situation similar to the Age of Empires series, where I like a lot of the game, but not its overall strategic goals. I want to explore and tinker with planets, and if the game lets me do that without forcing me to constantly defend my borders against one annoyance after another, I expect I'll like it a lot.

Cities: Skylines - 20/20 hours

I have a space elevator!

I thought that my garbage problem was going to doom Roundberg, but I was wrong. My economy was doing so well that I was able to simply buy my way out of the hole. By building incinerator after incinerator until my town was far over capacity, I was able to obviate the inefficiency of my transportation network. The same thing happened a couple hours later when I started to have trouble with body disposal. Being the town with the most per-capita crematoriums might not be the most impressive claim to fame, but it worked. Roundberg grew beyond my wildest expectations, and the collapse I'd feared 10 hours ago never came.

What wound up happening instead was that I hit an equilibrium. After about 100,000 people, my growth rate really dropped off. Sometimes it would dip into the negatives and then I'd demolish some abandoned buildings (a bafflingly pointless chore, by the way) and things would turn around and my numbers would inch upwards again, but at no point did my RCI demand graph budge from zero. There was no call for further dramatic expansions.

Maybe, long-term, the equilibrium might have broken up, but as of hour 20, my population was 103,000 and there was no indication that it would ever get any higher.

Still, I have a space elevator. You see, by reaching various milestones in the course of the game, you can unlock special buildings for your town which, in theory can have a dramatic effect (the Hadron collider, for example, sends your town's education value through the roof). I didn't notice much of a difference with the Space Elevator, but ultimately that didn't matter. I had a freaking space elevator!

The trickiest part of unlocking the special buildings was that some of the prerequisites required you to do foolish things like build 300 municipal buildings or have seven colleges. Others required you to actively tank your city by getting up to 50% crime or unemployment. Luckily, once you unlock a building in one game, it's automatically unlocked in all your other save files, so I was able to fork my town and earn all of the bad buildings in Mirror Roundberg.

The only one I was unable to get was the "build 20,000 commercial squares" building, which would have let me build something called the "Eden Project" which sounds pretty damned cool. Unfortunately, it doesn't count if you just have the squares zoned. Your simulated citizens actually have to develop the plots, so my complete lack of demand pretty much rendered that impossible. Maybe if I'd stuck with it the deadlock would have eventually broken, but for now it was a disappointing way to end my time with the game.

Looking back, I really enjoyed Cities: Skylines. It was a slicker and more sophisticated city-builder than SimCity 4, which is not surprising given that it was released 12 years later (!). I loved the 3-D modeling of the buildings, which let you pan the camera practically down to street level. It really felt like all my various towns were real places I could personally explore. SimCity2000 had an amazing feature where if you had SimCopter or Streets of Simcity, the games would load your city data to create their worlds and you could fly or drive (respectively) down the streets of your virtual town.  I would pay good money to be able to do that in Cities: Skylines.

My biggest regret is that I never mastered the traffic mechanics. Each time, I got a little farther, but as far as I can tell from online research, it was a lack of easy transportation that caused Roundberg to stall. The city budget was thoroughly in the black (to the tune of about 70k a week), the citizens were content (90% happiness), but apparently the thought of navigating to new suburban expansions gave them nightmares.

I think I know where I went wrong, and could possibly correct it in a future save file, but sadly, this is not the game I want to master. It was fun, and I loved seeing my city grow from a humble village to a mighty metropolis, but the mechanics are so fiddly that it would take many hours more to see true improvement. I simply don't have the time.

So, good-bye Cities: Skylines. I may not have been a legendary mayor, but I think I did credibly for a beginner, and I will always look upon with pride the things you let me build. Even the ones that didn't work taught me some valuable lessons.